02 Aug 2018

The Western concept of sovereignty, primordial ideas of territorial reach and democratisation forces that challenge authoritarian regimes overlap to form ASEAN’s key security dilemmas. These three core security dilemmas could pose serious threats and prevent ASEAN from fulfilling its 2015 goal of a “Security Community”.

Let’s use the analogy of the sprinter. He faces high injuries risks to his hamstring, calf and tendon. But it is the Achilles tendon that is critical to prolonging his competitive life span. Once it snaps, it signals the end of his career.

Without domestic peace, inter-state harmony and regional stability, the regional institution will suffer the fate of sprinters whose muscles have been worn down over time. More than 40 years of effort will be thwarted.

ASEAN’s injury records

Border skirmishes and stand-offs have long bedeviled relations between Southeast Asian states such as Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia and, to some extent, Singapore. These impasses challenge the states’ sovereignty and legitimacy as well as the stability of ASEAN. However, Southeast Asian states that have had muscles strained are still able to overcome these “nagging injuries” .

Even though Indonesia went into a socio-political and economic decline for almost a decade after 1997 when former President Suharto lost power, it has recovered in all aspects, once again returning to being a regional power in Southeast Asia.

ASEAN’s flexible engagement in the clash of wills between Myanmar’s military junta and civil society illustrates how a political impasse can be managed through a regional institution that is respected by all parties involved. Thailand and Cambodia are another recent example. They had acceded to the International Court of Justice’s decision over Cambodia’s ownership of the Preah Vihear temple.

However, the frustrations of an “aspiring great power” is a different state of affairs. China is raring to “sprint forward” and take a key role in regional affairs. The U-shaped string of islands in the South China Sea, which China claims to be part of its historical territory, illustrates China’s perception of itself as a dominant maritime power. China claims that it has rightful stakes in areas and islands surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin, Spratly and Paracel Islands (Hoàng Sa Islands) as well as that of Natuna Islands.

In February 1992, China passed a law declaring the entire South China Sea as its territory. Other stakeholders and claimants such as Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia have contested these claims for more than two decades. Naval skirmishes have erupted with Vietnam and the Philippines since 2005.

ASEAN’s Achilles’ heel

The South China Sea is one of the platforms that China could use to demonstrate its great power ambitions; Professor John Mearsheimer, renowned international relations expert, has said that an aspiring middle power can only become a great power if it first achieves being dominant regionally.

Though the nature and approach of war have evolved and major wars in East Asia as well as South East Asia are unlikely, there is a limit to diplomatic and military deterrence to inhibit further naval stand-offs between China and Southeast Asian states.

According to a RAND Corporation report, China has made substantial investments in its subsurface naval force modernisation. The Chinese Huludao shipyard is the only nuclear-powered submarine-building facility in the Asia Pacific. Though the South China Sea environment is unfavourable to anti-submarine warfare, Chinese submarines can operate with reasonable effectiveness. Thus, Chinese submarines can launch short-to-medium-range ballistic missiles that could threaten military as well as civilian shipping.

Other Southeast Asian states can illafford a belligerent China. The value of trade that moves along the South China Sea is valued at US $1 trillion annually and China holds 10% of this. If the Chinese continue to sabre rattle, ASEAN states’ distrust of China will only deepen and slowly, but surely, erode the diplomatic bonds that it has built with Southeast Asia over the last two decades.

Former Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping once said: “Calmly observe the situation; secure our footing; cope changes with confidence; conceal capacities and bide our time; skillfully keep a low profile; avoid sticking one’s head out; be proactive.” This wise foreign policy approach advice has kept the peace but it is an increasingly taut state of affairs. If these strained relations finally snaps, it would cost both China and Southeast Asia their peace and prosperity.

Syed Mohammed Ad’ha Aljunied is a Research associate (International Relations) at LKYSPP.